It’s hard to imagine, but at the start of 2019, Michigan will be seating a new Legislature that is greener and less prepared to make responsible policy than the one it is replacing.
For that taxpayers can thank Michigan’s strictest in the nation term limits law for a massive turnover that will see 70 percent of incumbent senators and more than 20 percent of representatives ineligible to run for re-election.
Most will have served just eight years in the Legislature, and will just be coming into their own in terms of experience and expertise when they will be forced out of office.
Term limits have taken a hard toll on the skill set of political leadership in Michigan.
The law passed by voters in 1992 restricts service in the state House to three, two-year terms, and in the Senate to two, four-year terms.
Leaders of the two chambers barely have time to learn the procedural rules before they are on their way out the door. And they don’t stay around long enough to develop the clout and wiles necessary to effectively push through legislation. Current House Speaker Tom Leonard will be gone in 2019 after having led his chamber for a mere two years.
What term limits have done in Michigan is empower the lobbyists and professional staffers who stay in Lansing as class after class of green lawmakers come and go.
Their advantage in terms of seniority gives them far more influence over the lawmaking process than the elected lawmakers ever gain.
What term limits haven’t done in Michigan is create a class of citizen politicians who serve for a while and go back home to civilian lives. That’s the bill of goods that was sold to voters. But it hasn’t materialized.
Instead, politicians pogo stick from one job to the next, moving back and forth from Lansing to their local communities in search of elected offices or political appointments.
Or they stick around the Capitol after their terms expire as lobbyists. With that lucrative door ahead of them, too many face the temptation to use their time in office to please potential future employers rather than serve their constituents.
Term limits were an awful idea that has proven worse in implementation.
That’s why we are encouraged to see the Michigan Chamber of Commerce push ahead with its consideration of a ballot proposal to make term limits work better for state taxpayers.
Details of the ballot initiative aren’t settled, but the goal is not to eliminate term limits — a politically impossible objective, though a worthy one — but to modify them in a way that would allow lawmakers to spend more time in one chamber or the other.
The modification under consideration would set term limits at 12 years and allow legislators to serve all of those years in one chamber or the other. That would mean six terms in the House or three in the Senate. Or lawmakers could split their time between the two bodies.
Theoretically, that’s less time than is currently possible, since a lawmaker can term out of the House after six years and then seek eight more in the Senate, for a total of 14.
But allowing them to stay in one chamber for the whole time would give them a better chance to gain the skills and influence they need to work effectively for their constituents.
The chamber’s proposal, if it materializes, will be up against a petition drive backed by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley that seeks to make lawmakers part time. But part-time lawmakers who are still strictly term limited would make the Legislature even more amateurish.
Nobody wants to see career politicians who take their seats for granted and stick around until they have to be carried out the door feet first. Nor do we want a body of greenhorns trying to muddle through complicated issues while they have one eye on their next job.
The chamber’s solution makes sense, and we hope it makes it to the ballot in 2018.